Free Indirect Suicide: An Unfinished Fugue in H Minor
How could she, how could she
– From “Thirteen examples of free indirect discourse in late Earth narratives, translated from the archaic postmodern,” published in the year 3841
Please I don’t understand it’s the pain I love you so much I’m so sorry do not resuscitate please it’s the pain
– From a suicide note written in 2012
For an English professor, she is very poorly able to articulate the “why now” for her suicidal gesture. […] More surprising is her inability to give a linear history given that she is an English professor. She starts talking about her parents’ parents when asked about why she is in the ER today.
– From “Mental Status Exam Psych Resident MD Initial Evaluation Note,” August 2016
One’s suicide does not happen belong happen to oneself alone.
– Proverb heard in a dream
Suicide may not repeat itself. But it rhymes.
– Her afterlife
H is for Hangul
H is for Han
H is for Hwabyung
By which I’m undone
A. “took own life”
B. “succumbed to terminal mental illness”
C. “killed self”
D. “ended own life”
E. “began new life”
F. “committed suicide”
G. “died by own hand”
H. “completed sculpture”
I. “logged off”
L. “landed in undiscovered country”
M. “lost battle”
N. “won war”
O. “finished game early”
P. “is waiting for you to catch up”
Q. “found secret melody”
R. “designed another way”
S. “still loves you”
T. “learned how to exist without living”
U. “is now beyond any language we know”
Sometimes I dream that you and my twenty-one-year-old self have merged and turned into a singular third person.
“Feel free,” the third person says, “to delete this ghost.”
“IN MIXED STATE,” DIARY ENTRY, OCTOBER 2018
According to the Mayo Clinic, my bipolar disorder is rapid cycling and “treatment-resistant.”
Yet there’s reason to be “cautiously optimistic”: thyroid supplements, according to the chair of psychiatry at Mayo, may help alleviate my symptoms.
On the way back to NYC from Rochester, Minnesota, I was hit by a panic attack in the sky. There really are no exits from a plane while it’s up in the air, are there? My brain was scrambled, and scrambling.
The nerves of my body are fighting their own climate change. Toxic spills of emotion, tsunamis of mood, rising levels of post-traumatic stress and bad memories. Hurricanes in my skull.
What can I do? I can try my best. I can try to be cautiously optimistic. I can hold on to moments that feel like happiness. I can. I will. I must.
I want a PhD in how to want, effortlessly, to be alive.
SOME OF WHAT I DON’T KNOW
Your name. (I’m too afraid to ask.)
The sound of your voice.
Exactly when you died.
Your last thought.
How your body was found.
Whether your family—my family—will ever forgive me for writing these words.
SOME OF WHAT I DO KNOW
Your death happened in Korea—Korea the homeland of my parents, Korea beyond unity and division, Korea whose DMZ I visit when I’m broken.
Your death happened in Korean—Korean my cradle language, Korean a language still foreign to me, Korean the language in which my parents are fluent, Korean the language I started losing (just as I started losing my eyesight) when the teacher instructed my parents to talk to me in English only, Korean a language my mother wielded like a long sharp object through my younger self, Korean a language that can bring me to my knees as if it were depression itself, Korean the language in which the terrible ideation speaks to me.
You died in the 1980s. You died when my mother was many years younger than I am today. You died when I was in elementary school. (You died just as I started wearing eyeglasses.)
I cannot stop myself from writing about you.
I cannot stop myself from dreaming about you.
I was the only other person in the room when my mother picked up the phone and learned that you were dead. Hearing my mother’s scream—but it was not a scream; it was worse than a scream; it pierced and froze my prepubescent marrow—is one of my earliest memories.
You were a mother also;
EXCERPT FROM MEDICAL RECORDS, AUGUST 2016
Orientation: Person Place Time. Yes Yes Yes.
Eye contact: Avoidant.
Thought Process: Goal Directed.
Thought Content: Suicidal.
My mother never talked about your life.
My mother never talked about your death.
Yet every time my mother raised her voice
Your silence whispered through me like a breath.
My mother never talked about your death.
My mother never talked about your life.
Yet every time my mother laid a hand
Your absence bled my body like a knife.
You were my mother’s beloved sister, her dear friend.
You were my aunt.
Sometimes, when I am consumed by the Korean fire-illness, by hwabyung, you become the sister I never had.
“—cation,” she said while watching intricately patterned fish materialize against the backdrop of shut eyelids. She had taken xx milligrams of xxxxxx just over an hour ago. She was lying on her back on the floor of her living room. The phone, a smartphone, was lying on her stomach. It was hot outside. It was July. It was the fourth of July, her rapist’s favorite holiday. Her rapist had died years ago—in 2007. Her rapist was a well-known scholar who had written a book. It was an important book. Everyone said so. Didn’t they? They did.
“What did you say?” her brother asked. Abruptly the sound of his voice made the intricately patterned fish vanish and replaced them with a fresh image: a rectangle, a shimmering diagram, rotating in space, perpendicular lines brought vividly to life.
What did she say.
She tried to recall what she had said before the memory of her rapist had intruded into her mind. As memory struggled, her body became a woman-shaped lake of ambiguous feelings: numbness, anger, hope, self-loathing, generosity, anguish, forgiveness, despair.
And then she remembered: love. She had been struggling to tell her beloved brother that she loved him. And she knew that if she sounded too sentimental, he would be alarmed. He would worry that she was saying goodbye. And then he would call 911. And her life might be saved. And she could not let her life be saved. Thus, she could not say “I love you.” But she wanted him to know that she did love him. Dearly. So dearly.
“I miss,” she said, with effort, tears converging in her eyes, “our location.”
“Are you okay?” her brother said.
“I’m sorry. I meant.” She tried to think clearly but could not. “Education,” she said, but that was not quite right. “Vocation? Medication. Vacation. Dislocation. Echolocation.”
“Shit,” her brother said. “Shit. Is this about Stanford? Shit. Should I be worried? Shit.”
“No. Please.” Tears were already streaming from the outer corners of her eyes, which were still shut, into her hair. The luminous rectangles were mutating into hills of calm green velvet moss. “Let me stay here. In the garden. Where we are safe.”
“Jennie? Hold on. Okay? Just, please, hold on.”
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” she said, crying.
“Hold on. I’m getting help. Jennie? Please just hold on.”
We dream that I and you have merged and turned into a singular third person.
“Do not,” the third person says. “Do not delete this ghost.”
UNRELIABLE NARRATIVE, WINTER 2015
This is her island. A small place where the dune meets the sea. A place that belongs to her alone. Here I am not even a guest. (Here I am not even a ghost.) My sense of being in this world cannot be documented, just as her existence in my reality has never been acknowledged. Not fully. Not officially. Not as a matter of record or fact.
How often have I visited? I’ve lost track. Anniversaries are hard. Reunions are hard. The timing is tricky. The fog of it… Not easy to endure. One of us survived. The other one will never need to understand the new millennium. She baffles the passage of time. Those incisions may look fresh, yet they neither bleed nor show signs of healing. Her hair is longer than she is tall (our heights are almost identical) yet her skin is more translucent than opaque.
(The veins of her soul. They remind me of the constellation of beads that I forgot to bring.)
Piecemeal and imperfectly, I feed her updates. I share with her the latest news and half-truths.
“Mom and I are closer now,” I tell her. “Weird, huh? Last year, that’s when things got better. Funny story: We were arguing on the phone—I’m not sure why… And suddenly she demanded… she said I had to ask her to forgive me, for being born. I had to say ‘죄송합니다’ about a million times. I begged and begged, and finally I think I was forgiven.”
She doesn’t laugh. A mist is gathering. It’s cold. The mist on this island makes me want to paint a bright red bridge. Instead I am shivering.
“Um, what else. Mom says you would have looked like Moon Chae-won. I had to google the name. Not that you know what ‘google’ means… Anyway, she’s a star. She’s a Korean star. Beautiful. Younger than we…”
My voice freezes. I realize I’m wrong. One of us is actually younger than Moon Chae-won. One of us will never truly grow old. She’ll never have to manage a dizzying regimen of pills, pills to automate the neurons… She no longer has promises to keep, or miles to go before she sleeps.
“…Dad and Patrick, they’re okay,” I say after I’ve regained my composure. “And Calvin, well, he has health issues.” I take a deep breath. “He’s old, for a dog. I wish you’d met him. He would love you. Maybe, after he’s gone, he’ll… end up here. Then you’ll get to know what it’s like…” (Why am I doing this? This is evil.) “…to play with a puppy. That’s something you never…”
The shaking has resumed. I can’t help it. It’s puppetry. It’s cruel, and it’s stupid, and I hate it. (The surge of emotion.)
I hate that I was too early. That they were nearly just in time. That they were sooner than late. That she escaped.
I hate that after all these years we still can’t figure out what to call her, or how to deal with the secret of her body.
I hate myself. For envying (instead of…). For wishing she could feel what I’ve felt. For saying what I’m about to say.
“Survival of the fittest—b’b’b’bullshit.” I’m ugly now, something to laugh at and disdain, but I’m relentless. “Fuck you. Fuck you! You were stronger than I was. More determined. We were supposed to switch places. You left me behind. You left me stranded.”
No response. She might as well be wearing headphones. Far away in the mist, lost in thought, dancing. She might as well be deaf, or blind, or both. She might not be here at all.
So I keep throwing words at her. About innocence. About luck, about how she’s lucky, she has no idea how lucky. She’s lucky the ___ didn’t happen to her, she’s lucky she doesn’t have nightmares about ___, she’s lucky she doesn’t have to cope with ___. And even, EVEN if all of that had happened to her, she would have known how to go on. How to “thrive.” How to “count her blessings.” I accuse her of being the one Dad and Mom and Patrick and Calvin deserve. Someone “brave.” Someone “resilient.” Someone truly alive. Someone happy.
I tell her how much it hurts, listening to the stories I hear about her. “So cheerful and outgoing… Independent… Full of life…” What hurts most is that no amount of disbelief can kill the memories—the disease of them being true.
Mist turns to rain. It dawns on me that everything is the same color: the rain, the dune, the sea, her hair, her wounds, the veins of her soul, everything. Illusion is breaking. The sound of my own voice must have woken me up.
“…Let me back,” I hear myself say out loud in my bedroom, which is cold and gray in the dim January air. I’m so sick of crying. But I remember the way she went and the images wrench and I am sitting up now with my body folded and I am shaking with my arms wrapped around my knees.
“Please I’m sorry please I’m so sorry I’m sorry you were in so much pain. Forgive me for not dying forgive me for not living. Forgive me for being here like this. Teach me, how. How to be alive. I will be better. I want to be better. For you. For both of us. For us all.”
DIALOGUE, SUMMER 1999
(Days after I was discharged from Yale New Haven Hospital following my first attempt.)
– My mother: Did you tell anyone about my sister.
– My mother’s only daughter (hesitating): Yes.
– My mother (quietly furious): Why.
– My mother’s only daughter (anxious): The doctors asked me if anyone in my family…
– My mother (her voice unreadable): You didn’t have to answer.
You may never read these words, but I must dedicate them to you.
M’Omoni, Omma, Mom, Mommy.
My only mother. Whom I love so much my lungs and brain and spine and kidneys and spleen and intestines hurt thinking about you.
May you never read these words.
But may you know.
EXCERPT FROM MENTAL STATUS EXAM/PSYCH RESIDENT MD INITIAL EVALUATION NOTE AUGUST 2016, NEW YORK CITY
– Appearance: Asian woman appearing stated age, in hospital scrubs, wearing prescription sunglasses, sitting with legs intertwined
– Attitude/Behavior: Provocative, providing information and often saying “Do I have to be honest with you”
– Speech: Audible, spontaneous
– Mood: Irritable, depressed
– Affect: Mood congruent, nonlabile
– Thought process: Circumstantial
– Thought Content: Endorses SI
– Perception: Denies current AVH
– Insight/judgment: Fair to impaired
Time Seen by Me (Military Time): 01-Aug-2016 16:14
Chief Complaint: “I’m here against my will; I want to end my life on my own terms.”
History of Presenting Illness: thirty-eight-year-old Korean woman, working as a literature professor, domiciled alone, not currently in a relationship, w/ past psych d/o BPAD, panic attacks, GAD, PTSD, fibromyalgia w/ one prior SA at age twenty-one (xxxx xxxxxx and took xxxxxxx), SIB of reported xxxxxxxx self with xxxxxx.
Patient states that she has had chronic suicidal motivation and asks whether we can “cure suicidality.”
She says she started feeling suicidal in college and again in 2012 when there was a flood of some kind that resulted in her becoming “an agoraphobe.” She notes that within the past few months she has been more unstable, unable to engage in work and social relationships at prior level of functioning.
Pt acknowledges that many times in college she would stay up for many nights in a row and appeared to endorse delusional thoughts of “battling the stars in the sky at night” which patient acknowledged was askew to reality.
She cites a European nation that permits suicide for the mentally ill.
Pt states “The world would be better if I were extinguished.” She says that no psychiatrist will engage with her “philosophically” but that she is just taking up resources and has “healthy organs” and is an organ donor and the world would be better off without her—it would be “like a scar healing.”
She says she has no spouse or kids.
Her thought process is circumstantial and she seems to be preoccupied with Korea and rape and Stanford and how that has complicated her life, as well as that it is unworthy for her to live.
For an English professor, she is very poorly able to articulate the “why now” for her suicidal gesture. She was also telling me an odd and long-winded story about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. More surprising is her inability to give a linear history given that she is an English professor. She starts talking about her parents’ parents when asked about why she is in the ER today.
While she does not appear floridly manic, she could have a more irritable mania. Patient also might have BPD, given apparent SIB and impulsivity, unstable self image, and emotional dysregulation—although depression or hypomania could be superimposed. Patient also has a family history of suicide in addition to a remote attempt. Thus, she remains at risk of suicide but this needs to be investigated more thoroughly.
Past psychiatric history: First contact after SA in college right after turning twenty-one, when also hospitalized.
Family psychiatric history: Patient’s aunt committed suicide.
– My father: Jennie, please? Please do not write about your aunt’s death.
– Self: But writing has been therapeutic for me. Cathartic.
– My father: But what about your cousins? What about Mom? What if they read your writing? How will they feel?
During my hospitalization in August of 2016, a team of doctors at New York-Presbyterian Weill Cornell asked me to tell them my story. Why was I there?
In retrospect I know I should have answered their routine questions by stating simply: I was there because my psychiatrist believed I needed to be hospitalized.
At the time, however, what blazed in my mind—what I needed to communicate most urgently—was the following message:
There is a line. This line explains why I must die.
This line is rarely legible, wildly cursive, often ghostly, and occasionally elliptical. It lives in the present tense.
It emerges like calligraphy from the ash-and-blood inkwell of the Korean War—the war during which my mother is born; the war that leaves my father orphaned.
It scrawls its way through decades encompassing precarity, immigration, mental illness, homesickness, my father’s mythic work ethic, my mother’s ethereal paintings, the strange arrangement of their marriage, and in 1978 the birth of an existence—mine—to which I do not consent.
Emphatically the line draws itself into a bright circle around the moment my cradle language begins to starve: When I am a young child, a well-intentioned teacher tells my parents to stop speaking to me in Korean if they want me to succeed in America. They must speak to me in English only, no matter how broken.
My Korean mother and I are thereafter divided by the English language. During the first half of my life, we are at war with each other over how a Korean daughter ought to appear and behave. During the second half of my life, the battleground evolves into a heavenly scenic demilitarized zone that neither of us can visit except in our dreams.
Follow the line to this fact: Since my parents speak to each other solely in Korean—every other word is like the slamming of a door—I do not comprehend the language of intimacy. Marriage is almost literally and certainly figuratively an alien language. Even today the idea of intimacy is to me violently counterintuitive.
The line ties me to my father’s father who was a literature teacher and who died from writing an elegy for his eldest son shortly after the Korean War.
It draws a connection between my beloved mother’s extreme Roman Catholicism and the unspeakable aftermath of the suicide of my mother’s beloved sister.
It ties itself into a knot each time I wonder if I am a chimera: Did twins coalesce when we—I—grew in my mother’s body?
It adds figurative meaning to my literal indebtedness to the IMF (the International Monetary Fund), where for over two decades my father is employed as an economist, where my brother and I complete math assignments in our father’s office while he works over weekends, where my father will learn to raise his children as “developing countries,” and against which friends over the course of my life protest for reasons that I understand both too well and not well enough.
It underlines one of the last significant events of my life before I move from Northern Virginia to college in New Haven: Inside a confessional booth in McLean, a priest says God cannot forgive me for being attracted to other females or for doubting His existence. However, the priest offers to give me holy water to keep next to my bed. In that way I can be protected from Satan.
By now the line and my consciousness are virtually indistinguishable. It is the concertina wire glinting through the circumstances of my adulthood: wrestling with bright celestial objects (which is how it feels to write essays on Kant and Hume at 2 a.m. while hypomanic), being handled like a doll or statue by my first dissertation adviser (a man who passionately collects early American artifacts), my struggle to forget the devastating fact that my first dissertation adviser sexually harassed and raped my twenty-two-year-old self, years of denial and trauma, compulsive self-hammering each time I need to “pleasure” myself, multiple attempts at suicide (logging off, resigning, giving up), experimental attempts at healing such as transcranial magnetic stimulation, my renaming from “Jennie” to “Seo-Young,” a fascination with the ecological sanctuary of the Korean DMZ, Emily Dickinson, a fraught relationship with North Korea (the reluctant subject of my second monograph), culture-bound syndromes such as postmemory han, a telepathic connection with my Korean American beagle nephew (himself afflicted with postmemory han), the precision with which I perceive when I shut my eyes (phosphorescent landscapes and rhetorical edifices that I “close trip” as if close reading a poem), discovering that at forty-one years old I (a queer agnostic spinster) have become the embodiment of my childhood phobias, teaching too autobiographically, needing to teach as powerlessly as possible, the ongoing and haunting sense that reality is not real, the desire to be a stainless steel robot, the fantasy of prying open the secret of North Korea at the base of volcanic Mount Paektu, and a conviction that I have the right to end my life on my own terms.
I must have said it aloud numerous times. “I have the right to end my life on my own terms.”
My brain is terminally ill, I told the doctors. My mind is in excruciating pain. I am ready for my brain to die. Meanwhile my other organs are healthy. Give my organs to those who need them. It is the logical thing to do. I never consented to existence in the first place.
Let me go. Cut the line. All it is doing now is barely holding my parts together like hideous stitching, like this very sentence, and suspending the sorry thing that is less than the sum of my parts from the hands of a heinous puppeteer I hope I never meet. Burn my remains.
Years later, reading the psychiatrists’ notes, I could not help but feel bemused by their assessment. Patient’s thoughts are circumstantial, tangential, digressive. Delusional? (Patient is a professor!?) Patient does not understand what is medically relevant. Patient goes so far as to mention Korean War.
“Of course I had to mention the Korean War!” I exclaimed to the medical file in my hand.
The truth is that my desire to die (one that seems to have postponed itself for now) is more than a medical phenomenon. Yes, I am bipolar, but there are other factors that characterize my struggle with suicidal ideation—among them Roman Catholicism, the English language, the English poetry I was taught to read closely, the Korean poetry I was never taught to read, the poetry I now teach to my students at Queens College CUNY, North Korea, Northern Virginia, Northern California, the Stanford professor who abused his power by turning my younger self into an antique object, science fiction, Asian American literature, postmemory han, my inability even today to accept fully that my body and mind are worthy of recovery, and the fact that Seo-Young misses Jennie.
Seo-Young misses Jennie.
And both Seo-Young and Jennie miss the mother whose sister never ended her own life.
When I was little, my mom and I were fluent in the same
“Here in America I’m dumb”:
just one of many accusations,
one of many spears aimed at
her only daughter, aimed at me,
before she left America
forever, left for home, her home,
in Seoul, where I—she says—am “dumb.”
A dozen planets later I
can’t help but wonder if she knew
her aim was genius—poison—clear.
That spear, it hit my ear and found
the center of my brain. It grew
a tangle of hwabyung so dense
I could not learn again Korean.
Omma x 4
Omma x 4
Omma x 4
Omma x 4
Omma x 4
Omma x 4
Omma x 4
– Friend: Don’t you have a biological clock? I want to be a mom as soon as possible.
– Self (matter-of-fact): I don’t think I want kids, but I do feel the pressure of some kind of biological clock. I feel— I feel this pressure, this odd pressure. This pressure to end my life.
– Friend: Stop!
– Self (apologetic): Don’t worry! I’m fine. It’s just— (Pause) this feeling of pressure in the cells of my body. It feels—It feels like the pressure of a deadline. (Pause) The deadline for giving birth to my death. (Pause) Sorry. I’m just being honest. (Pause) I imagine it’s not unlike your biological clock.
– Friend: Well, I hope you never give birth.
– Self (laughing, earnest, without any bitterness): Aw. Thanks. And I hope you have a wonderful family. I know you will.
DIARY ENTRY, NOVEMBER 2014
Dream last night: I meet the ghost of my mother’s sister, the one who killed herself back when I was too young to understand what was happening but old enough to understand that something was horribly wrong.
In real life I never met my aunt, but I was physically there when the news arrived. It was mid-afternoon somewhere in Northern Virginia. The phone rang. My mother answered. She uttered a cheerful greeting in Korean—it reminded me of a bird uttering a lovely chirp. And then, suddenly, she began to make a sound I can’t begin to describe.
For days, for weeks, for months after the phone call, my mother herself disappeared—not to Korea, but to a bathroom in our old house. (It was too expensive for us back then to attend a funeral on the other side of the planet.) All the bath towels vanished into the place with the locked door where my mother grieved. Sometimes I could hear my mother shrieking.
Years later, after I asked one of my older cousins what had happened to that particular aunt, and after my cousin explained that my mother’s dearest sister (they had been close friends) had committed suicide, and after my mother discovered that I had asked this unforgivable question (to this day I blame myself for having been curious) —after that sequence of events, my mother refused to speak to me for a long time (almost a year), and for a long time I was terrified of her fury. My mother became beyond human: pure, implacable, abstract, impossible to reach.
(What I did not know, what I wish I had known, were the depths of her sorrow and how utterly stranded she felt: far from her home land and increasingly disconnected from her eccentric daughter.)
In the dream from last night, the ghostly meeting happens out of nowhere and for no apparent reason. My mother’s sister is made out of diaphanous flesh. Her face is obscured by a veil. At some point the thought occurs to me that she and I might be the same age, and I start to shiver. “Pray for me,” my mother’s sister says, “and I will pray for you.” When I begin to protest gently by saying “I’m agnostic now; I no longer believe,” my aunt murmurs: “You are diaphanous too. We are like twins.” And only then do I notice that I myself am wearing a veil.
…I woke up to the feeling of my body shaking and tears already in my eyes. Since then, I haven’t been able to stop myself from sobbing into towels. I don’t know for whom I am praying or to whom I am praying or whether I am praying at all, but the phrase “Pray for me” haunts me and I am stupidly inconsolable. If ever my Catholic mother reads these words, I hope that she will be merciful.
Not to be.
Around the time when my mother stopped speaking to me, my father bought a canary for the family to love and enjoy.
The canary, who never sang, had feathers the color of a school bus. Even now when I see a school bus I think about the dejected canary. For some reason it spent most of the time leaning against the bars of the birdcage. No amount of coaxing or food seemed capable of cheering up our bird.
One night I woke up to the sound of my mother exclaiming in Korean. She was standing next to the birdcage. She had found the canary’s lifeless body.
I remember my first thought: Did the canary commit suicide?
There was a time when I could not think about the canary without weeping. I am grateful that right now, today, on January 12, 2019, I can write about the canary and not feel annihilated.
Who dove into the abyss itself to rescue his daughter from its depths
Who again and again found his daughter still alive almost
Who brought his daughter back to life
Who never gave up
Who has never given up
Dr. K: Sir, could you elaborate on your mother’s death? Was she ill?
My Dad (reluctantly): Oh—, no, she just. She— (breathing carefully) She drowned.
Dr. K: Was it a suicide?
My Dad (evasively): Oh, there was just a well. In Korea. Where we lived. After the war. After my sister went missing in the North. After my brother and my father died. And one day my mother. Was found. In the well. She. Drowned. (Pause; long sigh.) I don’t know. If it was. Accidental. Probably she. (My father starts to nod his head absently.) She.
Dr. K: Seo-Young. You’re crying.
Self (struggling not to mutate into a raging inter-dimensional mournful post-memory hwabyung goblin on steroids): Of.— Course.— I’m.— Crying—. (Pause; struggling not to summon lightning, thunder, hail. Struggling to stay within linear time. Failing.) My mother’s sister.—My aunt.—She completed a suicide when I was a little kid. I was there when the phone rang and my mother got the news. Have you ever heard a shriek of pure helplessness unleashed from the lungs of someone who is suddenly no longer human?
Dr. K: Not exactly, but
Self: Silence. My mother stopped speaking to me for months after I asked about what happened. Apparently I angered her by reminding her of her sister’s death. So she stopped speaking to me. But she didn’t stop hitting me. She didn’t stop battering me in front of my little brother.
My dad (long, painful sigh): I was at work. I had no idea.
Self: Later she was even angrier at me. She trashed my bedroom. Literally there was broken glass on the floor. Bookshelves: eviscerated. Why? Because I became an English major. Because English is the language that tore us apart.
My Dad: Jennie. I’m sure Mom is proud of you, Jennie. Jennie, Mom loves you very much.
Self: Hold on. The crazy woman in the room is still talking. (I point at my dad.) This one here. This orphan. This living miracle of history. How many tragedies has he endured? And yet somehow he thrives! In what universe am I actually related to him? Dr. K., did you know. My father’s own father—my grandfather!—died of being Korean. He died of han and hwabyung. Apparently when he watched his eldest son starve to death an evil force crushed his lungs and brain. That’s how grandpa died. And as we all heard just minutes ago, my father’s mother probably drowned herself in a well! And doctors wonder why I’m suicidal!
Dr. K: Here, Seo-Young, here are some tissues.
Self: Oh I’m just getting started. You think this is me crying? No. This is rainbows and sunshine and unicorn puppies compared to the crying that happens when I’m at home. Have you ever seen an entire body weep?
Flesh, chromosomes, hair, feet, marrow, intestines, ovaries, knees, uterus, ruptured discs, orifices that have been gleefully violated by two different rapists, a heart sick of beating, sinuses, bones, liver, ears, nerves that are simultaneously numb and screaming in pain, kidneys, brain, teeth, gums, epidermis, trachea, spleen, too much memory! everything!—and yet Western medicine tells me that I am more or less perfectly healthy. My cysts are all benign, the soft tissue masses benign, edemas nothing to worry about, fibromyalgia a mere nuisance, thyroid vision stress hormones white blood cells herniated discs etcetera just slightly “abnormal” but nothing “serious”—
My Dad: This is all good, Jennie.
Self (furious; irrational; channeling dangerous energy): Then why do I feel like I’m dying literally dying. And Dad why aren’t you crying. Your mother drowned herself in a well! Listen to that sentence!
Dr. K: I have something to say.[LATER, in my apartment]
Self: I’m sorry, Dad. I lost control in there. I’m so sorry.
Dad: No, Jennie, I’m so sorry.
Self: I realize there’s also a lot of good in our lives. Not just trauma. [Pause] Dad, when you won the dissertation prize in economics at Columbia, did anyone congratulate you?
Dad (subdued, matter-of-fact): Oh, not really. My parents, as you know, were no longer alive. And when I received the letter about the prize, I was already living in DC. It was not a big deal. Mostly I was so relieved to have survived Columbia. I had not attended good schools before Columbia, and I was poor, so I was focused on survival.
Self: Dad, winning that prize is a big deal. Congratulations. Congratulations, Dad. I am so proud of you. Congratulations.
Dad (starting to cry)
DIARY ENTRY, DECEMBER 2018
During my latest hospitalization, I had a lot of time to think. One realization: my suicidal ideation may be a figure of speech for negative emotions I experienced after my mother’s sister committed suicide.
When the phone rang and my mother heard the news, I was the only other person in the room. I was also a young child. I remember my omma made a sound worse than screaming. And then she was never the same. She became different forever.
(That “scream”—it has rhymed and resonated through decades.)
Years later my mother found a way to blame me for her sister’s death. I don’t blame her. I was an alien daughter, unforgivably American and grotesquely female. It—the “it” of the suicide and its unspeakability—it was never resolved. Even today she and I don’t really talk. There’s a DMZ between us.
Between my mother and my self
My father is the DMZ—
The zone that buffers
Her from me.
Maybe when I feel “suicidal” I am actually feeling a powerful desire to stop the bad feelings surrounding my aunt’s suicide.
FREE INDIRECT ________
It is distributed unevenly across time, space, individuals, and communities.
It is a vivid thread erupting there or here in a beige-yellow fabric.
It is a rogue melody suddenly asserting itself in a contrapuntal fugue.
It is the turmoil of ideation slipping in and out of the minds of individual characters in a story narrated in the free indirect style.
She/he/they/it felt—she/he/they/it knew—yet how could she/he/they/it know?—that she/he/they/it had no other choice.
Time. Time to let go.
And if somehow I lose myself,
Don’t judge. Please just feel better.
And if somehow I meet my aunt
I’ll tell her that we love her.
I wander through an empty museum. Suddenly a bright light appears at the end of a long corridor. As I approach the light, I see something that freezes my nerves and stops my heart:
The spear that replaced my mother’s voice when she learned that her sister had killed herself.
Blazing without temperature, it hovers and revolves inside a transparent glass box.
Should I keep walking toward the spear?
Hold me, the spear says in my mother’s voice.
Slowly I walk toward it.
TRANSLATED FROM KOREAN HWABYUNG
How could she—
Mercilessly sunlit memories streamed through her brain. The sound of her laughter. The jokes they shared. The gossip, the closeness.
Slowly her face crushed itself against a towel. She was sitting on the floor, legs folded before her, knees close to her chest. The towel was dense with tears. She had locked herself in the bathroom upstairs. It was the only place where she knew how to be.
How could she?
Downstairs, her son and daughter were probably doing homework. Her daughter had witnessed her at her most ___________—What must her daughter think of her. She did not care. She could not care. Her husband would be home soon. She did not know how to care. She had not yet prepared supper. She was incapable of caring. She was too—too elsewhere to care.
How could she.
God, my God. Weeping, she wept. Suddenly she screamed! Some part of her was terrified by the sound. That part of her was buried deep inside a place now locked forever.
She did not notice, or did she, that her daughter was knocking on the bathroom door. Mom? Omma? Mommy? Where are you? She did not notice. She was somewhere else.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, she prayed, blind with loss. The words spilled from her like tears.
Now and at the hour of our death.
Now and at the hour of our death.
Now and at the hour of our death.
SUICIDE PREVENTION LIFELINE
Rumpus original art by Briana Finegan.